Best Foreign Language Film is one of the trickiest categories to predict for the Oscars. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed, it’s that there will be surprises on the 9-film shortlist which precedes the nominations. That list should be arriving any day now, so I decided to take on the foolish task of predicting which films will show up.
Anticipating this unpredictable category requires an understanding of the Academy’s voting trends. I’ve therefore separated the main contenders into 4 groupings, based on Oscar history:
THE AWARD WINNERS
What’s the best way to win Academy Awards? Win other awards! In the case of Foreign Language Film contenders, that golden ticket comes from success at the top international film festivals. Many recent nominees were prizewinners at three in particular – Berlin, Cannes and Tribeca. This year however, Berlin and Tribeca winners were scarce on the submissions list, leaving Cannes to be the top dog (as it often is). In 2013, a trio of nominees (The Hunt, The Missing Picture, Omar) were coming off Cannes triumphs and I expect more of the same this year. That’s good news for films like Force Majeure, Leviathan, Mommy, Winter Sleep, White God and Charlie’s Country.
Another strong barometer for a film’s popularity is the European Film Awards, due to the category’s Eurocentrism. Voted on by more than 3,000 European Film Academy members, they can often indicate which films have the broad appeal that will make them stand out. In fact, both of their most recent Best Film winners (Amour and The Great Beauty) went on to win the Oscar. Perhaps Ida will follow their lead, having dominated this year’s edition of the European Film Awards. The film has clearly established itself as the one to beat, also claiming the lion’s share of the stateside critics awards so far.
FAMILIAR DIRECTORS, FAMILIAR STORIES
When Danis Tanović’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker made the shortlist last year, many pundits were left scratching their heads. Though it had won 2 prizes at the Berlin Film Festival (again, this festival is key), very few expected it to go anywhere in the Oscar race. However, as Zhang Yimou can attest, when they like you, they really like you. Suffice it to say, Tanovic’s previous win for No Man’s Land should have signaled that “Episode” could be a potential dark horse. We should therefore watch out for Accused, directed by Paula van der Oest, whose 2001 film Zus & Zo was an Oscar nominee.
Similarly to familiar directors, the Oscar voters also seem to have a weakness for certain narratives. Specifically, they gravitate towards films about World War II and/or children in peril. Films that fit this description include the already mentioned Ida and Difret (about a 14-year-old Ethopian girl who retaliates against her kidnapper). The latter’s high profile executive producer (Angelina Jolie) won’t hurt its chances either.
THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE
There’s no substitute for genuine “buzz” when it comes to the Oscar race. If cinephiles are already enthusiastic about your film ahead of the awards season, half of the work is already done for the publicists. In that regard, a film like Timbuktu should have an advantage, with audiences universally reporting how deeply it affected them.
When I refer to people, that also includes critics, whose tastes are often indicated by the Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations. Based on the HFPA’s nominations, we should therefore keep an eye on Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem as well as Tangerines. Likewise, another critics’ fave that was nominated by the BFCA is Two Days One Night, starring Marion Cotillard. Her own Oscar campaign for Best Actress will ensure that this latest Dardenne brothers film gets seen. The BFCA also gave a boost to Wild Tales, though it would be an unusually comedic entry in this particular category.
In addition to critical acclaim, a more tangible measure of popularity is box office. The clear winner in this regard is Cantinflas, which has grossed more than $6 million domestically so far. The film also boasts considerable nostalgic appeal, which will surely earn it some fans within the Academy.
Every year brings a few of unexpected inclusions in the shortlist and this year’s record number of submissions will surely contribute to that trend. As mentioned earlier, Difret is one that seems to tick a lot of boxes, yet it’s absent on nearly every pundit’s predictions. Call it wishful thinking, but I’m going to gamble on this one. Difret has won numerous audience awards along the festival circuit, a feat that has been matched by another wildcard contender The Way He Looks. This gay-themed film has already received US distribution from Strand Releasing, having been released in theaters on November 7.
The “wildcards” are usually deemed “executive committee” saves, i.e., the 3 titles that are added to the general committee’s 6 chosen films. When the more artistically challenging films like Dogtooth get mentioned, it’s usually assumed they were special selections. This time around, these picks could be reserved for films like Concrete Night (a stark black-and-white film by Pirjo Honkasalo) or Norte, the End of History (the daunting 4-hour drama by Lav Diaz).
Evidently, there are many strong options – including some that I failed to mention – for voters to choose from. Taking all these factors into consideration then, here are my predictions for the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist (listed in order of likelihood):
1. Ida (Poland)
2. Force Majeure (Sweden)
3. Leviathan (Russia)
4. Mommy (Canada)
5. Two Days, One Night (Belgium)
6. Timbuktu (Mauritania)
7. Winter Sleep (Turkey)
8. White God (Hungary)
9. Difret (Ethiopia)
Also watch out for: Charlie’s Country (Australia), Tangerines (Estonia), Wild Tales (Argentina), Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel).